I'm starting to get irritated with Frank's. Because it won't stop being burned down.
Frank's is the heating and air conditioning place. Frank's people come here to sweep the chimney. Service the swamp cooler. Etc. Once a Frank's guy sold me some wood. It was good stuff. I burned it nights, during the maroonment. Kept us all here from becoming icicles.
When the PG&E guys returned the gas, they advised not firing up the gas wall heater, as, from age and wear, there had developed a crack in the chamber, which would pump out carbon monoxide, whenever it whooshed on. That explained why, before the fire, the carbon monoxide alarm would sometimes go off. But not for long. So I ignored it. Now, though, I decided I didn't want to become the guy who survived the fire, only to carbon monoxide himself. So I called the owner, Art, told him of this latest manifestation of the Second Law Of Thermodyanics, and he and I agreed we would call Frank's. They would repair it. But then we remembered Frank's burned. There is no Frank's. Not any more.
Frank's is right around the corner from here, and right across from the Paradise Transit Center—which is a fancy name for an iron bench set in a little glass half-enclosure. Whenever I go to this Center, there to catch the bus, I look at Frank's. It's look or go blind. Because it's right across the street. And, of late, besides looking at Frank's, I talk to Frank's.
"Still lookin' pretty burned there, Frank's," I say. "Burned as you were yesterday. And the day before that. Could you maybe try to be less burned? I don't like you being burned. I know you don't like it. So. Whaddaya say? Give it a try. Try. Try to be less burned."
I understand it's probably not normal, talking to rubble, but so what? The whole town burning down isn't normal either. And I mean, who's going to hear me? All the houses but one there on Almond, from Birch all the way down to Elliott, are burned; nobody lives on that street now, nobody at all. And, since the fire, I haven't encountered a single soul, there at that bus stop, waiting, as I wait, for the bus. Before the fire, generally there'd be people there. I remember that sometimes they'd want to talk to me. And sometimes I wouldn't want to. Well, I take that back. Now. Come on down, people. Let's talk. Somebody. Anybody. Something. Anything.
I'm not really sure what it is I want Frank's to do, in order to be less burned. Because I know that when burnedness gets changed, I don't like that either. There's a burned lot over by the Stop And Shop, and I got used to its burnedness, the way it looked, and then one day I saw that all the burned had been pushed into one big ugly towering pile. I didn't like that. It made me feel sick. And I guess next, that ugly towering pile of burned, it will be hauled away. And then, there, there will be . . . nothing. And I won't like that either.
I'm not going to like much of any of it, until the day I go out there and there isn't any burned. Because there was never a fire. Or there was a fire, but it remained within the bounds of reason—not this wild firestorming Dresden thing that took the whole town. I know now that's what I secretly, subconsciously, expected to happen. And I'm not the only one. A lot of us thought one day we'd awake, and we'd be out of this Mordor, and back again in Kansas. With Aunie Em and Uncle Henry. Hunk and Zeke and Hickory. The hogs and the dogs. Even Mrs. Gulch. And none of them would be burned. But that's not happening. We know now. That's not happening, ever. The fire, is final.
Sometimes I can't take the non-fire people. I can't meter my response. Somebody queried, a while back, "so, it's all back to normal up there now?"
"Sure!" I replied. "All the houses have sprung back up, everywhere they're standing, and all the cremated remains have formed again into people, and they're up and walking around and talking and laughing and happy!" Long silence, on the other end of the line. Maybe I'll get fired, I thought. I didn't care. What a cruelty. Is everything back to normal up here.
Of course, I myself lived for a time in an illusion that everything would soon be back to normal. During the maroonment, when it was just me up here, me and all those thousands of workers, expending all that fantastic energy to bring the town back, we all lived in this great bubble of hopefulness, me and them, that once the infrastructure was back, the town would magically come back to life. When once those workers were done, and the town reopened, the people would stream back in, and there would be dancing in the streets, and everyone would live Capra-ly ever after. There was a real closeness, an intimacy, up here then, though most all those people were not from Paradise, had never before been here, but they all had Paradise in their hearts, they hurt for it, and they wanted to make it alive again. I remember the police officer, the one who brought me chorizo and eggs for breakfast one Sunday, saying that although he'd lost everything, it would take him years to rebuild, the fire had also burned through all the barriers between cop and citizen, and he liked that, the mutual wariness was gone, he looked forward to being part of a smaller police force, in a smaller town, but this time actually part of the community, woven all through it, rather than set off from it. That was the sort of dreamtime we were in, then.
But then the town actually did reopen. The Honea oracle spoke the magic word—Shazam!—but instead of the town going Captain Marvel, it was just Billy Batson again. And Billy Batson burned.
And now that the euphoria is gone, you have to question whether all that fantastic energy actually made sense. Like, PG&E stubbornly set back up every pole, strung anew every wire. Exactly as it had been before the fire. I honor all those men and women, from all over the country, who accomplished that. But now there are power poles marching past block after block after block of dead, denuded, burndom. There's nothing there to bring power to. Will there be? Ever? And, if ever, how long, until ever, is reached? Some 90% of Paradise Irrigation District's ratepayer base is gone, and yet the PID people are out there right now testing and repairing all their water lines, lines, like the power poles, running through a town where 90 percent of it isn't there any more. Miles and miles of pipe, bringing water, to where there is no one. USPS is back, delivering mail, to some 980 structures, houses and businesses. That's what we're down to. That's a hard number. There are now fewer people in Paradise, than there are in Biggs. That's where we are.
And we're scattered. People moving back up here, especially women living alone, they're setting up phone trees, so they can be instantly in touch with others, throughout the scatterdom, if there comes a need. In olden times, in disasters like this one, afterwards jackals would move in, both human and animal, because the land, laid waste, was vulnerable, and the people, being few, they were vulnerable, too. Those olden times, they are these times, here, now. Up here we have coyotes roaming the rubble, and human coyotes too; you look at their mugs, when the police pick them up, and you see that these are people clearly in dire straits, but they shouldn't be preying their dire straits, on ours. I never thought I would be a person who would accept any sort of curfew, but I'm fine with this one. The one running from 8 p.m. through 6 a.m., throughout all of the town. Because the town is burned. Almost all of it, is burned. And the police do not want to have to try to figure out if people skulking in the night through the burndom, or sneaking sally though what's left of the alley, belong here. So we stay inside. And if you're not inside. You don't belong here.
Some women living alone, they don't want to come back. Some people, period, don't want to come back. And for these people, as Lew Welch says: "no blame, no balm." I can sit up here on my porch, and if I look at it right, there is no burned. Or maybe just a little. But what if my house, was like the houses of two women I know, who are pulling out? Their houses stand, but nothing around them does. Their neighbors now: burndom. Waste. One of these women worked years fashioning a magical little garden, an acre around her little tin-roofed house. The fire spared the house, but fired every single plant. Cooked every house, for blocks around. There are a couple houses she can now see from her place, several blocks off; she can see them only because the fire took all the houses in between. It's unnatural. It's creepy. She doesn't want to be there. It was vile, the fire erasing all her neighbors, scorching all her green. She doesn't want to sisyphus that garden again. And the town, she no longer trusts it. She woke up one morning, her neighbor pounding on her door, saying you've got to go now, there's a fire, she over on the far east side, where the fire came in first, she did the endless wait in the jammed traffic, driving, idling, driving, in flames, opened her car door for a woman running out from her house that had just caught ablaze, and by the time she reached Chico, and the sun set on that day, all of her town was burned. A town like that, she can't trust it. Not any more. So, she's moving on. I understand. I wish her well. Out there with the other tens of thousands. In the diaspora.
Others want to come back, but can't. They were renters, say. But there isn't anything here to rent. Or they've bought trailers. But there's nowhere here to hook up. Town and county officials did make it possible for some property owners to plant a trailer on their burned property, if the parcel was large enough, but now those people have to pull up stakes and get out again, because a federal FEMA grant can only be applied to a place that is uninhabitable, and if the town is allowing people to park trailers on their burned ground, that means those people are habiting. So, no money. Or, the trailer-on-the-burned people, they gotta leave. Not knowing anything about it, I think, well geez, maybe they could rewrite the requirements for the grant. But I know it's not that simple. Especially when these are the feds we're talking about. And those people are real busy these days, with this and that. Like quarreling with the cretin. Over his wall to keep out the brownness.
Fact is, this is all unprecedented. We're all having to make it up as we go. No entire town has burned down in this country since the days when there were no cars, no electricity, and people didn't know what is a germ. That's a long stretch. I pray god no other town ever burns down. But if it does, we'll maybe be able to help those people. Because we're the pioneers in this. Back in the maroonment, in the days of euphoria, that's what me and the workers would talk about, that, when it reopened, this would be like a pioneer town. And that this is a pioneer town, that is now Real. But we forgot, me and them, that being a pioneer town, that is not something romantic, like out of a John Wayne movie. It's hard and it's tough and it's backbreaking and it's heartaching. And the pioneers themselves, they never really got to enjoy the fruits, of their pioneering. That was for those who came after. Which, for instance, was us. Until the town burned down. Now we must be pioneers of a different sort. Pioneering what happens when an entire town goes down in flames, in the United States in the early 21st Century. There's no path for this. We have to make it ourselves.
There's a chart going around that explains why we were all so high up here, during the period of the maroonment. It tracks the different stages following a mass disaster. It doesn't seem right, that your life is tracked on some chart, but the reality is that it is. That euphoria we had there, the chart says, that is what is typical in the early "heroic" and "honeymoon" periods. But we're past that now. Now, we're plunging down the bottomless pit of the next stage: "disillusionment." Where nothing will ever get better. Where you've fallen, and you can't get up. Where we all look like wrecks, just as our town is a wreck. Where it seems like it will never end, and all of it is insurmountable. Where you realize you need to buy mustard, because you've lost everything, everything, and it all has to be replaced, even something as simple and basic as mustard, it all has to be replaced, and you have to do it, you have to go out and do it, and you can't do it, it's just too much, it's all too much, and so you go and lay down, and you stare at the ceiling. Then, hours later, you summon all of your powers, rise from the bed, and go into the tiny little trailer kitchen, to make bacon, and you start to do that, but then you realize you can't turn the bacon, because you don't have tongs, even the tongs are gone, you need to buy tongs, I don't want to buy tongs, I shouldn't have to buy tongs, it isn't fair, I shouldn't have to buy tongs, I shouldn't have burned, it isn't fair, the fire shouldn't have burned me, I'm so burned, I don't want to be burned, all I am now, all there is of me, is burned.
I didn't burn, but last night I roared at the scanner in the Save Mart, because it officiously said I'd done something I hadn't, it was being stupid, there wasn't any reason to roar at it, those machines are always stupid, you just deal with it, but I roared at it, and the Save Mart woman hurried over and she said that's alright, these machines aren't very friendly, here I'll help you, she said, and she was friendly, even if the machine wasn't, and she helped me, and she said see now you're fine, but I wasn't fine, I'm not fine, and I burst into tears, because I'm burned.
A lot of it has been bad, the bear was bad, the dog in the bathtub was bad, so many things have been bad, but maybe the saddest thing I've heard was from a woman burned, everything lost, all her friends and family, almost all of them burned, almost every place she's ever known, burned, castaway after on a couch, more than a month, and now in a trailer, but diasporaed, because there's nowhere up here to hook up, and now she's not sure she even wants to hook up here, because every time she comes back up here, it's worse, it's harder, it's more burned, it won't stop being burned, and it's getting creepy even, it's getting spooky, like she doesn't want to be in the trees, because although she knows the fire didn't spread through the trees, it spread through the buildings, trees still can burn, trees did burn, she saw it and felt it and lived it, and these trees still up here, they might burn, why wouldn't they, they burned before, they can burn again, who can trust these trees, in this town, not to burn, and she doesn't want to be in them, when they are burning, she's already burned, she doesn't want to be more burned, she just wants to maybe go somewhere, like on a road trip, maybe to the high mountain country, or to Costa Rica, or even just Susanville, Greenville, I don't know, she says, I don't know where, "I just wanna go somewhere pretty."
Yeah. I think that's what I'm asking of Frank's. When I ask it to not be so burned. I want Frank's to be pretty.
And someday it will be. Even if I don't live to see it. But that really doesn't matter with me now. Even though it does. It can't. Because that's my job now. To make it happen. I'm a pioneer.
And some will come. Be a pioneer. With me.